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College admissions scandal: what it reveals about wealth in America

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When the Department of Justice revealed on Tuesday that dozens of people were accused of participating in a scam to bribe and lie their kids’ way into colleges, one question kept coming up: why?

These parents — actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, casino executive Gamal Abdelaziz, and vineyard owner and Democratic donor Agustin Huneeus among them — were generally wealthy. Their kids did not need a degree from a selective college in order to support themselves — Loughlin’s daughter Olivia, for her part, didn’t particularly want to go to school. So why risk criminal charges just to get your child into college?

Of course, some rich parents may go to extraordinary lengths to get their kids admission because they believe a university education will be good for their children. But for some of the families accused as part of the admissions scandal, something else may be at play. A degree from a selective college is “a marker of status, kind of like a Maserati or living in the right neighborhood,” Paul Piff, a psychology professor at the University of California Irvine who has studied social class, told Vox. “It’s this kind of rat race of constantly trying to preserve and seek out these status symbols that showcase to others that you’re doing well.”

For some parents, getting a kid into a good school — even if they have to break the rules to do so — may function as a kind of proof that their wealth and social status are well-deserved. But the results can be damaging, both for the children of the wealthy and for other students who actually earned their spots in school. Ultimately, the admissions scandal could prompt a reexamination of society’s misconceptions around wealth and merit — if enough people are willing to pay attention.

Even for rich people, a child’s admission to college is a marker of status

According to federal indictments unsealed on Tuesday, William “Rick” Singer ran a college counseling business through which he helped get students into top universities — sometimes by bribing officials and falsifying application materials. The parents implicated in the scam were wealthy, high-profile people. And at least according to the indictment, they had enough money to pay Singer five or six figures to get their kids into college.

Loughlin, who played Aunt Becky on the show Full House, and her husband, designer Mossimo Giannulli, paid $500,000 to Singer and $50,000 to a USC official to get one of their daughters into the California school, according to the indictments. They did so by claiming the teen was a crew coxswain, even staging a photograph in which she poses with a rowing machine, the documents say, and they later repeated the process for their younger daughter, claiming she was also a rower.

Loughlin and Giannulli face fraud charges and have been released on bail.

Giannulli started the clothing company Mossimo, which had a longstanding partnership with Target — Mossimo’s first three-year contract with the retailer was worth $27.8 million, according to the Wall Street Journal, and it was extended several times. The couple put their Bel Air mansion on the market for $35 million in 2017; according to Realtor.com, it was one of several homes they have renovated.

Many parents may see college for their kids as a ticket to a good job and financial stability. But parents in the income bracket that Loughlin and Giannulli appear to occupy can already offer their kids financial security, with or without a college degree. So why break the law to get a child into a selective school? (USC reported a record number of applications in 2018, and an acceptance rate of 13 percent.)

College isn’t just about getting a job, Piff explained. It’s also about social standing.

“Money is but a small part” of class and privilege in America, he said. “Another big part of that is belonging to the right clubs, knowing the right things to do when you go to a restaurant, knowing the right kinds of restaurants to go to, having read the right kinds of books.”

“An education is a marker of all sorts of important forms of privilege that are really, really valued,” he added.

That’s especially true for people who became wealthy without going to college, or without going to a selective college, said Lisa Birnbach, editor of The Official Preppy Handbook, a humorous guide to wealthy WASP culture. “I believe there is a sense that this will elevate you,” she said.

Olivia Giannulli, known as Olivia Jade on her popular YouTube channel, has said that neither of her parents went to college. According to Town & Country magazine, Mossimo Giannulli attended USC but dropped out without graduating.

The willingness to pull out all the stops to get children into college may be particularly pronounced among baby boomer parents, according to Birnbach.

“Sometimes I feel like there was a memo that was sent to people of my generation,” she said, “and that memo said stop at nothing, be insane, your children’s college admission and placement and degree is a total signifier of your place in the social strata of this country.”

It’s “not that we loved our kids more than our parents did, but we catered to them, we hovered over them, the way our parents didn’t,” Birnbach said.

“Today’s parents, especially mothers, are spending more time and money on their children than any previous generation — on things like lessons, tutors and test prep,” Kevin Quealy and Claire Cain Miller reported at the New York Times. In a survey conducted for the Times by the technology and media company Morning Consult, 76 percent of parents of children ages 18 to 28 said they had reminded their children of deadlines, and 74 percent said they had made doctor appointments for their adult offspring.

Meanwhile, people of higher socioeconomic class are more likely than others to believe that their positions are “fairly determined and just” as well as part of who they are as people, Michael W. Kraus, a social psychologist at Yale who studies inequality, told Vox. Getting your children into an elite school may be a way to maintain that belief, he said.

“You may be wealthy now, but if your kids don’t achieve the same level of success that you did, maybe that’s evidence that it was luck,” he explained. “That kind of personal threat is a piece of what can motivate you” to engage in subterfuge like what Loughlin and Giannulli are accused of.

Bribing your kids’ way into school perpetuates the myth of meritocracy

Parents may have justified using Singer’s “side door” for admissions as “business as usual,” Kraus said — especially since there are plenty of legal ways that people with money can de facto buy their kids’ way into school.

But in addition to taking up spots that could be filled by students who worked hard for them, the practice of gaming the system to get your kids into college may reinforce some of Americans’ most deeply held misconceptions about wealth and social standing, experts say.

The idea that wealthy people have all worked for and deserve their wealth is “a sacred value in this country,” Piff said.

“That’s kind of baked into the American dream,” he explained — and if we believe that rich people earned all their money, we’re more likely to put up with a big gap between rich and poor.

By allegedly paying to get their kids into schools they wouldn’t have been admitted to on their own, parents accused in this scandal may have been perpetuating this myth of meritocracy.

Many parents who worked with Singer kept their efforts secret from their children, according to indictments. As a result, Kraus said, the children of wealthy families may have ended up in college with no awareness of the unfair system that got them there.

“You have, basically, a lot of unearned privilege for people at the top who don’t even know that they have unearned privilege,” he explained. “And then other people have to interact with them.”

But now, Piff said, the admissions scandal could cause a lot of people to reevaluate their beliefs about wealth and success, as Americans realize how rich people can buy things — like college admission — that others have to work hard to get.

“The moment we start kind of questioning the idea that this is a meritocracy,” he added, “our tolerance for economic inequality begins to kind of crumble.”

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Look at How Much “Game of Thrones” Characters Have Changed Over 8 Seasons

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During the summer of 2019, the final season of Game of Thrones aired. The show had gone on for almost 10 years which is a long time not only for the characters but also for the actors who portrayed them.

Bright Side is remembering what characters looked like in the very first episodes of the groundbreaking series and is comparing them to what they look like in the final season of the show.

1. Cersei Lannister

2. Jon Snow

3. Tyrion Lannister

4. Daenerys Targaryen

5. Sansa Stark

6. Arya Stark

7. Jorah Mormont

8. Varys

9. Jaime Lannister

10. Sandor Clegane

11. Brienne of Tarth

12. Samwell Tarly

13. Davos Seaworth

14. Theon Greyjoy

15. Brandon Stark

Did you watch Game of Thrones? Did you enjoy season 8? Tell us in the comment section below.

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Baltimore’s ransomware attack, explained – Vox

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Thirteen bitcoins are standing between the city of Baltimore and many of the services and processes its citizens rely on after hackers seized thousands of government computers at the start of the month. The ordeal has been going on for two weeks, and there’s no clear end in sight.

Here’s what’s happening: On May 7, hackers digitally seized about 10,000 Baltimore government computers and demanded around $100,000 worth in bitcoins to free them back up. It’s a so-called “ransomware” attack, where hackers deploy malicious software to block access to or take over a computer system until the owner of that system pays a ransom.

Baltimore, like several other cities that have been hit by such attacks over the past two years, is refusing to pay up. As a result, for two weeks, city employees have been locked out of their email accounts and citizens have been unable to access essential services, including websites where they pay their water bills, property taxes, and parking tickets. This is Baltimore’s second ransomware attack in about 15 months: Last year, a separate attack shut down the city’s 911 system for about a day. Baltimore has come under scrutiny for its handling of both attacks.

The ransomware attacks in Baltimore and other local governments across the US demonstrate that as ransomware attacks spread, and as common targets such as hospitals and schools beef up their online systems’ security, there are still plenty targets vulnerable to this kind of hack. It also exemplifies the conundrum that ransomware victims face: pay up and get your access back, or refuse — potentially costing much more in the long run.

What’s going on in Baltimore, briefly explained

Hackers targeted the city of Baltimore on May 7 using a ransomware called RobbinHood, which, as NPR explains, makes it impossible to access a server without a digital key that only the hackers have.

The Baltimore hackers’ ransom note, obtained by the Baltimore Sun, demanded payment of three bitcoins per system to be unlocked, which amounts to 13 bitcoins to unlock all the seized systems. The note threatened to increase the ransom if it wasn’t paid in four days, and said the information would be lost forever if it wasn’t paid in 10 days. Both deadlines have now passed.

“We won’t talk more, all we know is MONEY! Hurry up! Tik Tak, Tik Tak, Tik Tak!” the note said.

The city government is refusing to pay, meaning that the government email systems and payment platforms the attack took down remain offline. The attack has also harmed Baltimore’s property market, because officials weren’t able to access systems needed to complete real estate sales. (The city said transactions resumed on Monday.)

Baltimore Mayor Jack Young, who’s officially been in his office less than a month, said in a statement on Friday that city officials are “well into the restorative process” and have “engaged leading industry cybersecurity experts who are on-site 24-7 working with us.” The FBI is also involved in the investigation.

“Some of the restoration efforts also require that we rebuild certain systems to make sure that when we restore business functions, we are doing so in a secure manner,” Young said. He did not offer a timeline for when all systems will come back online.

The Baltimore City Council president also plans to form a special committee to investigate this latest attack and try to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

A similar attack using RobbinHood hit government computers in Greenville, North Carolina, in April. A spokesperson for Greenville told the Wall Street Journal that the city never wound up paying, and that while its systems aren’t entirely restored, “all of our major technology needs are now being met.”

More than 20 municipalities in the US have been hit by cyberattacks this year alone. And such attacks can be expensive, perhaps especially if targets say they won’t pay. In 2018, hackers demanded that Atlanta pay about $50,000 in bitcoins as part of a ransomware attack. The city refused, and according to a report obtained by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News, the attack wound up costing the city $17 million to fix.

Ransomware attacks aren’t new — but we’re still figuring out how to deal with them

In 2017, a ransomware called WannaCry targeted tens of thousands of computers using Microsoft Windows operating systems in more than 100 countries. Officials in the US and the United Kingdom eventually blamed North Korea for the attack. Also in 2017, corporations in the UK, France, Russia, Israel, and Ukraine experienced ransomware attacks. US hospitals were also targeted.

Here’s how Timothy Lee explained for Vox what was going on and how ransomware had become more prolific:

The basic idea behind ransomware is simple: A criminal hacks into your computer, scrambles your files with unbreakable encryption, and then demands that you pay for the encryption key needed to unscramble the files. If you have important files on your computer, you might be willing to pay a lot to avoid losing them.

Ransomware schemes have become a lot more effective since the invention of Bitcoin in 2009. Conventional payment networks like Visa and Mastercard make it difficult to accept payments without revealing your identity. Bitcoin makes that a lot easier. So the past four years have seen a surge in ransomware schemes striking unsuspecting PC users.

Some ransomware schemes are so sophisticated that they even invest in customer service, helping victims who want to pay their ransoms navigate the complexities of obtaining bitcoins and making bitcoin payments.

Since then, a number of sectors and organizations have made improvements to their security practices to protect against ransomware. But the latest Baltimore attack exemplifies what a whack-a-mole game this is: One area improves its practices and hackers just go looking for another.


Recode and Vox have joined forces to uncover and explain how our digital world is changing — and changing us. Subscribe to Recode podcasts to hear Kara Swisher and Peter Kafka lead the tough conversations the technology industry needs today.

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Cameron Russell for ELLE

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A film by Kai Z Feng of our February 2014 cover.

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